I do opera reviews from time to time, but this is my first movie review, so please bear with me. I was very excited to watch this movie, entitled “The Free State Of Jones”, starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, an actual historical figure in American history.
To get the wiki metadata out of the way, before delving into the plot: The movie came out just this year (2016), had a $50 million dollar budget, was a box-office bomb (of course), and went straight to DVD. The movie is produced by a company called STX Entertainment, founded in 2014. STX has set itself a worthy goal of producing a broad variety of film genres in the $20-60 million range, which is considered a medium-sized budget these days. The American hunger for variety remains unquenched. Unfortunately a film like “Jones” doesn’t always hit the spot, due to the seriousness of its subject matter, and the fact that most Americans want escapism and fantasy, not historical realism. Americans will sit still in their seats for an inter-racial romance, but only if it is titillating and/or sensationalistic. None of which “Jones” is. Nonetheless, I reckon that this particular film will continue to garner returns on the ancillary markets such as DVD and pay-per-view. I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in real history, especially Civil War buffs. Yes, you will see some battle scenes probably populated by professional Civil War re-enactors. But please be aware you will not see Scarlett O’Hara in her fine dress, nor her beau Rhett Butler. No, I take that back: You might see Rhett in one of the later scenes depicting Klan mobs riding their wild horses through the countryside. But with his head covered by a hood, of course.
And aside from “Jones”, the only decent Civil War movie I have seen recently is a little gem called “Union Bound“, which is produced by a Christian/family outfit, but I don’t have time right now to go into that plot. Just suffice it to say, that it is a pleasure to see a small but increasing market for Civil War movies with a pro-Union ideological slant.
Not A Romantic Comedy
But let’s get started on the “Jones” film, already. For starters, Matthew McConaughey is amazing in the lead role of Newton Knight. Well, we always knew that Matthew is a great actor. Personally I was never fond of him myself, until I saw him in The Lincoln Laywer, a completely different type of role, for which he was also perfect. In the latter role, he played a sleazy, borderline sociopath defense lawyer. Whereas in “Jones” he portrays an ideological fanatic. On the level of a John Brown type fanatic. (Just look at those burning eyes in the photograph of the real Newton Knight.) A fanatic who also happens to be a natural leader of men, who managed to put together a ragtag band of Confederate deserters and freed slaves; and to hold off the armies of the plantation owners, the landed gentry, and the Confederate troops, for over a decade.
“Jones” is a very well-written movie. (Written and directed by a man named Gary Ross.) According to his wiki, Ross is a typical Los Angeles, Hollywood screenwriter, from a screenwriting family. He is Jewish. (Of course he is.) He is a Jewish liberal who worked for Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign, and who wrote typical blockbusters like “Big” and “Sea Biscuit”. He has major contracts with studios such as Disney. From such a stock type one could well expect a feel-good liberal film about race relations or narrow “identity politics”. But not something like this. There is actually nothing in Gary’s bio which could have predicted that he would sit down and write a completely Marxist screenplay such as “The Free State of Jones”. Having said that, I hope I have not said anything that could get Ross in trouble with the neo-McCarthyites; and yet I have to point it out: This is a communist film. Why? Because it’s all about communist issues such as land ownership and the right of a man to enjoy the fruits of his own labor. It portrays the Confederacy as exactly what that criminal enterprise actually was: a rump-state oligarchy designed to serve the narrow interests of the slave-owning class. And, like all oligarchic forms of government, did not shrink from employing the most extreme and medieval methods of violence against the underclass, up to and including castrations and lychings, while covering behind a sweet-voiced facade of aristocratic polish and “honor”.
In his expertly crafted script, Ross manages to tell two parallel stories, but in a straightforward manner, without the usual Hollywood tricks, and using a minimum of jumping back and forth in time. Each story is given its due weight. The smaller story is the romance between Newton Knight and the house-slave girl Rachel. If this were a typical Hollywood movie, then their inter-racial romance would be the main storyline. Instead, it is played down so as not to overshadow the larger story, which is about the war itself, and the fight for the land; a conflict which pitches a ragtag army of freed Negroes and poor whites against the plantation owners. The romance angle is treated delicately, and partially by flash-forwards in time (again, not done intrusively) which reveal the eventual outcome: Newton and Rachel had a son together named Jason. 85 years later, Jason’s great-great grandson, deemed an “octaroon” by the arcane laws of Jim-Crow era Mississippi, is convicted and imprisoned for the crime of trying to marry a white woman. According to Mississippi miscenegation laws of the 1940’s era, any person with 1/8 or over Negro blood was considered legally to be a Negro and therefore may not marry a white person. Point being, that the North won the big war, but lost the peace, due to its own gutlessness. But more of that disappointing outcome in the continuation of my review.
Who Or What Was Jones?
With that interesting but less important side-plot out of the way, let us return to the main storyline, involving the war and the fight for the land.
The most amazing thing about this plot is that it is based on a true story. I am guessing it is not the kind of story that American schoolchildren typically learn in their textbooks. (I could be wrong, and I hope I am.) More likely, American children read about the Civil War and Reconstruction, but I doubt if they are taught such details about land ownership, about property rights, or about the class struggle in the countryside.
“Jones” refers to Jones County, Missisippi. A swampy land where, remarkably, in the very underbelly of the Confederacy, a “Free State” was established. A state which raised the Union flag. A state which espoused, in its ragtag constitution, the principles of racial equality and “He who sows the land has a right to the fruits of the land.” Principles elucidated by the military and ideological leader of “The Free State of Jones”, a former Confederate Captain named Newton Knight.
When watching this movie, I was struck by certain similarities to the current situation of the Donbass, Ukraine. “Jones County” reminded me of the Donetsk Peoples Republic, and I will explain some of the similarities (and differences) in the next installment of this review
[to be continued]